In the name of the European Union: on the significance of words


In recent days, there has been a lot of talk in the EU about an emerging “wave of refugees” or “migration disaster”. However, the real disaster is the failure of Western governments to rescue people from Afghanistan who deserve our protection, the Director of our office in Brussels, Eva van de Rakt, comments.

Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel in Brussels
Teaser Image Caption
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Charles Michel, President of the European Council, in Brussels in February 2021.

Read our dossier "Afghanistan: return of the Taliban".


In 1965, German writer Heinrich Böll wrote that “anyone who loves language knows that it is the most human thing about people and that by the same token, it can also become the most terrible expression of their inhumanity: words can kill, words can heal"[i]

I have found myself thinking about this quotation a lot in the last few days. Speechless and in shock, I have watched how unprepared the USA and EU Member States were caught by the Taliban’s takeover – with disastrous consequences for everybody in the country who has worked for democracy, human rights and freedom of speech in Afghanistan over the last two decades. It becomes clearer with every day that passes that it is mainly because of the misjudgements of Western governments that the security situation in Afghanistan has escalated to become so dangerous, so deadly, in just a few days. We do not know how many human lives can be saved before the US troops leave. It is outrageous that short before the fall of Kabul, asylum seekers were still being sent back to Afghanistan from EU Member States.

When I imagine those people affected having to hear or read statements by Western politicians with the emphasis not on ensuring their safety, but on warning about the increasing numbers of refugees who may reach the external borders of the EU, my blood runs cold. Whether directly intended or not, whether they are spoken unknowingly or with ambivalence: words can kill.

Which crisis?

There has been a lot of talk in the EU in recent days about an emerging “wave of refugees”, an imminent “migration disaster”, and an expected “refugee crisis”. These dehumanising words evoking images of fear are often used as allegedly neutral terms. “2015 must never be allowed to happen again”, goes the crude message and absurd assertion. However, the real disaster is that Western governments will not be able to bring everyone entitled to our protection out of Afghanistan to safety by the end of August 2021.

Already in 2015, we were dealing not with a “refugee crisis”, but with a crisis of European refugee policy. This semantic clarification makes a huge difference, both in how the events of that year are presented and how they are perceived. It is not too much to expect democratic politicians to refrain from spreading false information and disinformation, and to choose their words carefully to avoid polarisation and escalation. Because their words could also heal.

However, the migration policy crisis rumbles on to this day. It overshadows many discourses and, due to its devastating hopelessness, it is eroding the very pillars of the European project. While some Europeans self-righteously shake their heads in disbelief at people in Afghanistan putting up no resistance to the Taliban, as the international support vanished overnight, senior politicians in the EU cannot even manage to defend European values with clear and unambiguous words, because they are obviously too worried about losing votes.

It is just about a year since the European Commission tabled its “New Pact on Migration and Asylum”. In practice, however, this long-awaited proposal will not remedy the shortcomings of the Common European Asylum System, but may even make them worse. In the jargon of the European Commission, the term “migration management” is in increasing common use. Words can mislead.

What European sovereignty?

In his first declaration “on behalf of the European Union after his meeting with the EU foreign ministers, the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, explicitly warned of the dangers of “uncontrolled irregular migration” and, in his final sentence, stressed that the EU would also “support Afghanistan’s neighbours in coping with negative spill overs, which are to be expected from an increasing flow of refugees and migrants”. The fact that these are the words Borrell chose, while there are people who cannot get to Kabul airport or leave it and are in fear of their lives, shows one thing: the EU is primarily preoccupied with itself, and as far-right heads of government have been setting the tone for years in migration and asylum policy they are at the same time dragging the EU institutions along with them. It verges on absurd when the EU’s High Representative makes a statement to the whole world with the main purpose of sending out domestic policy messages. It goes to show how discouraging far the claim of a repeatedly called-for European sovereignty and credible global role for the EU has drifted from reality in recent years.

We cannot assume that Borrell is indifferent to the plight of people caught up in these events. Obviously, he stressed that the evacuation of EU citizens and local staff working for the EU or Member States would take priority and called for the “protection and promotion of all human rights, in particular those of women and girls”. However, it shows a significant lack of respect towards those in danger in Afghanistan and a certain degree of political irresponsibility to  issue warnings of a “potential migratory disaster”. For anyone trying to show both humanity and determination, whilst avoiding treading on the toes of EU leaders whose political communication places particular emphasis on the term “migration deterrence”, all well-intentioned words, all empathy and credibility, are sadly falling by the wayside.

A question of political will

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, also addressed the migration issue at a joint press conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, during their visit to the “Welcome Hub” for evacuated local Afghan staff of the EU delegation and their families at the Spanish military base of Torrejón in Madrid: “We will also need to consider issues related to migration. We are well aware that migration issues are always difficult matters, all over the world – including in the European Union. Our approach, which must consist of building partnerships with third countries, will of course be the subject of discussions that we will have initially in the European Council with the European Commission, in order to develop strategies to ensure capacities for regular, orderly migration, and to find that balance between the integrity of the European project, which is crucial in my view, and the ability to defend European interests and ensure security”.

Certain buzzwords hang in the air: difficult matters, third countries, capacities, defending European interests, ensuring security – although von der Leyen also referred explicitly to the necessity and moral duty of the EU to work with the international community to set in place resettlement programmes for people in danger and entitled to protection.

In view of the traumatic experiences local staff and their families who have just landed in the EU have been through, it is shameful that the President of the European Council describes their arrival as a “difficult matter”. This is not what a warm welcome looks like. Furthermore, overcoming migration policy challenges and conflicts within the EU is not a question of capacities, but a question of political will.

In common cause?

Michel and von der Leyen rightly praised the social-democratic head of the Spanish government Sánchez for his preparedness to temporarily house the local Afghan staff of the EU delegation and their families who have just flown in from Kabul. I say rightly also because as a country with an EU external border on the Mediterranean, Spain, along with Italy and Greece, has been and continues to be abandoned by other Member States when it comes to admitting refugees. It is, however, clear that the 27 EU Member States are extremely unlikely to come to a satisfactory agreement any time soon on how to relocate the asylum seekers now in Spain and on quotas for taking in refugees from Afghanistan.

Making matters even more complicated is the fact that Slovenia will hold the Presidency of the EU Council until the end of 2021. On 22 August, the country’s right-wing Prime Minister, Janez Janša, tweeted that the EU would not “open any migration corridors for Afghanistan”, accompanied by images from 2015. His SDS party is a member of the European People’s Party group at the European Parliament. The President of that institution, David Sassoli, quite rightly reminded Janša that it does not fall to the EU Council Presidency to say what the European Union will do. It is frankly embarrassing that he needed telling. Even so, Janša will be able to influence the discussions and negotiations between EU Member States, since it does fall to the EU Council Presidency to arrange and chair sessions of the EU Council and to hammer out compromises in the event of any conflict between Member States or between the EU Council and other EU institutions. As the current moderator of internal EU negotiations, the Slovenian government will be entirely capable, if it so chooses, of holding up or blocking these negotiations.    

Everything will depend, in the coming weeks and months, on individual EU Member States setting a good example and not leaving the discourse up to others – including expressing preparedness to take in people from Afghanistan and offer them secure prospects of remaining and the opportunity of a future in the EU. In this context, the next German government will have a particular responsibility.

It is extremely important to realise that words make an existential difference. For words can kill, but words can also heal.


The original German version was published on 25 August 2021 on


[i] German original: Kölner Ausgabe Bd. 14 der Heinrich Böll Werkausgabe, herausgegeben von Jochen Schubert, „Epitaph für Walter Widmer“, S. 324-325, Köln, Kiepenheuer und Witsch, 2002